Last Life in the Universe (2003) / Drama-Comedy
aka Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan

MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexual content, language and drug use
Running Time: 112 min.

Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, Yutaka Matsushige, Riki Takeuchi, Takashi Miike, Yoji Tanaka, Sakichi Sato
Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Screenplay: Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Prabda Yoon
Review published May 25, 2005

Last Life in the Universe is a quirky semi-love story with lots of small, contemplative moments anchored in between some larger than life thriller elements.  It's not an easy picture to describe, although if I were hard-pressed, I might call it Lost in Translation if those characters had people out to kill them.   Although the story proceeds mostly without a defined structure, this narrative emptiness also punctuates the aimless lives the two main characters have been leading, wanting desperately for something else but never really having the guts to do anything about it until they find one another. 

Tadanobu Asano (Zatoichi, Ichi the Killer) stars as Kenji, a lonely, depressed Japanese man living as a library employee in Thailand, plagued with constant impulses to kill himself.   Kenji's life is mostly an empty shell existence, until one day his long lost gangster brother shows up at his door, looking for a place to stay while he lies low, as his boss is after him for seducing his daughter.  Meanwhile, Kenji becomes somewhat infatuated with a young Thai girl who is in the library, but she leaves before he gets a chance to introduce himself.  The next time he sees her, it is mere seconds before she is killed in an accident.  Kenji ends up befriending the girl's older sister, Noi, and soon he moves in with Noi in her far away home, mostly to get away from the yakuza he is sure will be after him once they discover two of their men gunned down in his apartment.  Kenji and Noi form an improbably friendship, neither particularly happy with the status quo, yet together, they have a bond that is hard to describe, each finding fulfillment in examining the life of the other.

Last Life in the Universe is a slow-moving black comedy, perhaps too strange to satisfy mainstream audiences, but frequenters of art house cinemas will most likely find a wealth of enjoyment in the flaky humor, oddball romance, and random situations that the characters find themselves in throughout the course of the modest story.  Co-writer/director Ratanaruang (6ixtynin9, Transistor Love Story) never rushes his story, letting the futile lives of the characters absorb in, then surprising us with a sudden surreal twist that lets us know that there is something deeper going on at all times.  The meanings of these twists are subject to interpretation since Ratanaruang never points directly at just what he means by them, although in their own way, they do make a certain sense if you pay attention to what's going on.

For his film, Ratanaruang enlists the services of world-renown cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has gained acclaim for the stunning work he has done is Australian and Asian films like Rabbit Proof Fence, In the Mood for Love, Hero, Infernal Affairs and many other major works of high regard.  Doyle's approach here is far more subtle than the period pieces and epics he has done in the past, but his quiet camera movements and static imagery blend perfectly with the kind of story that Ratanaruang has brought forth here.  Also of note is the quiet electronic score by Small Room and Hualampong Riddim, which is about as minimalist is it gets, almost imperceptible until the later scenes, where the subtle, gentle rhythms work in unison with the delicate interpersonal story between the two people who have forged a connection despite their very different backgrounds and personalities.

Last Life in the Universe is a mood piece, so full of quiet that some viewers may mistake the inertia as if there is nothing going on.  This is a subtle piece that contains many themes, touches lightly on them in ingenious ways, and then tosses in head-trip moments now and then to make sure you know Ratanaruang isn't asleep at the wheel.  I can't say I understood everything about the film, but I did always find it interesting, intricately amusing, and even occasionally touching, so I'm recommending this film primarily for those bored by conventional movies and yearning for something to speak to them in a small but very strong voice, yearning to break free from mundane existence and find a way to get moving once again.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo